tonal shift

At Columbia, Walcott says "poisonous debate" is hurting kids

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Dennis Walcott at Teachers College.

In his first speech since being named chancellor, Dennis Walcott poured on the charm, asking everyone to “dial down the rhetoric” and giving no hints of any new reforms he’s planning.

Walcott spoke at Columbia University’s Teachers College on Saturday morning, filling in for ousted Chancellor Cathie Black, who was originally scheduled to speak as part of the day-long “academic festival.”

While Black quickly gained a reputation for verbal faux pas and blunt remarks, Walcott was warm and light, cracking jokes about his recent high-profile stint making waffles for students — and even jokingly flirting with the namesake of the morning lecture, Phyllis Kossoff.

Walcott’s charm even moved the crowd to applaud the much-maligned Black.

Carefully avoiding new policy announcements, Walcott focused most of his speech on trying to bridge different sides in the reform debate. He told the crowd about his childhood in Queens — noting that he grew up, and attended public schools, in the same borough as ex-Chancellor Joel Klein — and the role that great teachers had in his success.

“Unfortunately that’s not a storyline we hear as often as we should, especially when it comes to education,” Walcott said. “The conversation we hear about is poor versus the wealthy. Charter schools versus district schools. And who is to blame for the failures of our education system.

“People on both sides of this debate have been guilty of contributing to the current polarized atmosphere,” he said.

“The poisonous debate is hurting our children, plain and simple. And they don’t have time to wait for us to grow up,” he continued. “The problems facing our schools are extremely complicated. They can’t be summed up in 10-word sound-bites. And above all they can’t be solved until we start listening and working together.”

Walcott said he wants high-quality schools in the city, regardless of whether they’re traditional public schools or charter schools. “I want options. I love options. … I want people to be able to choose.”

Other highlights from Walcott’s speech:

  • He didn’t distance himself from previous administrations, saying he and Klein talked regularly and were “joined at the hip” — to the point that their wives wonder why they speak to each other so often. But he also talked up his relationship with union leaders, and especially UFT President Michael Mulgrew, as well. (Mulgrew has not exactly welcomed Walcott warmly.)
  • In an interview after Walcott’s speech, Teachers College professor Jeffrey Henig pointed out that Walcott mentioned his relationship with the unions much more than his relationship with Klein. “That was very important and welcome,” Henig said.
  • Walcott acknowledged that the “problems of poverty and education are deeply intertwined.”
  • He also said the “last-in, first-out” policy of seniority-based layoffs can’t be allowed “to remain on the books.” In response to an audience question, he shot down the argument that ending LIFO might result in principals laying off the best-paid teachers, saying — not completely accurately — that the way schools are funded gives principals no particular incentive to do so.
  • Walcott said “the jury is still out” on incentive pay, but indicated he “has some ideas” along those lines that he plans to raise with the union. He said he’s very open to “creative ways of paying our teachers.”
  • He pointedly declined an invitation from a teacher in the audience to visit her charter school in Philadelphia — which is part of the Mastery chain — saying he’ll be busy visiting New York City schools instead. In fact, Walcott said he plans to spend most of his time in the city’s schools—and that the press will need track shoes to keep up with him. “I’m an open book … I’m going to be accessible,” he also said.
  • Despite a conciliatory tone and lack of specifics, Walcott said Mayor Bloomberg’s education reforms aren’t dead and he won’t shy away from them. “I believe in tough decisions,” he said. “I don’t plan for a second to take my foot off the gas.”
  • Henig said that Walcott’s remarks — and the change from his predecessors in tone, style and approach to stakeholders — likely signal that he’ll assume a lower profile on the national level. “To me that’s suggesting, perhaps, a distinction from Chancellor Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee,” Henig said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.